Background: Public authorities in European countries are paying increasing attention to the promotion of work ability throughout working life and the best method to monitor work ability in populations of workers is becoming a significant question. The present study aims to compare the assessment of work ability based on the use of the Work Ability Index (WAI), a 7-item questionnaire, with another one based on the use of WAI's first item, which consists in the worker's self-assessment of his/her current work ability level as opposed to his/her lifetime best, this single question being termed "Work Ability score" (WAS).
Methods: Using a database created by an occupational health service, the study intends to answer the following questions: could the assessment of work ability be based on a single-item measure and which are the variables significantly associated with self-reported work ability among those systematically recorded by the occupational physician during health examinations? A logistic regression model was used in order to estimate the probability of observing "poor" or "moderate" WAI levels depending on age, gender, body mass index, smoking status, position held, firm size and diseases reported by the worker in a population of workers aged 40 to 65 and examined between January 2006 and June 2010 (n=12389).
Results: The convergent validity between WAS and WAI was statistically significant (rs=0.63). In the multivariable model, age (p<0.001), reported diseases (OR=1.13, 95%CI [1.11-1.15]) and holding a position mostly characterized by physical activity (OR=1.67, 95%CI [1.49-1.87]) increased the probability of reporting moderate or poor work ability. A work position characterized by the predominance of mental activity (OR=0.71, 95%CI [0.61-0.84]) had a favourable impact on work ability. These relations were observed regardless of the work ability measurement tool used.
Conclusion: The convergent validity and the similarity in results between WAI and WAS observed in a large population of employed workers should thus foster the use of WAS for systematic screening of work ability. Ageing, overweight, decline in health status, holding a mostly physical job and working in a large-sized firm increase the risk of presenting moderate or poor work ability.